As is my usual practice with popular TV shows, I hold out for a few months, then decide to watch the pilot just to see what all the fuss is about, then fall into an antisocial state of binge-watching that show for the next several days/weeks. The latest show to suck me into its orbit was True Detective, which thankfully only has one manageable 8 episode season so far. I didn’t think I’d like the show at first because I’m not usually a big fan of police procedurals, but I got on board when I realized that True Detective isn’t so much a crime-solving show as it is a Southern gothic novel in TV form.
Southern gothic, for those who don’t get as excited as me when it comes to defining genres, is a style of writing that typically follows flawed characters as they navigate through dark or sinister events in the American South. Sometimes there’s magic involved, often there’s a folklore element, and there’s almost always some kind of decay (of buildings, society, what have you). Basically, the Southern Gothic Wikipedia page should just have a giant picture of True Detective on it by now.
So for those who watched True Detective and discovered that they’ve been latent Southern Gothic fans this whole time, I’m going to throw out a few book recommendations. Important note: I’m not claiming to be an expert in the genre, and I’m not writing a “Best Southern Gothic Novels Ever” list. I’ll admit that I haven’t even read any novels by William Faulkner, which is a pretty big oversight on my part. However, I know what I like, and these are 4 books that have really stood out to me.
Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor
Every time I picked up this book I sort of felt like I had a high fever and was suffering hallucinations, but in the best possible way. There’s just something so off-kilter about this novel, which features a blind preacher, an unpredictable teenage zookeeper, a man bent on sharing the gospel of anti-religion, and a teenage nymphomaniac, among other characters. Fans of True Detective will appreciate the themes of faith and illusion, and everyone should appreciate a particularly bizarre scene involving a gorilla costume.
Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote
I guess the obvious choice for a Truman Capote book on this list would be In Cold Blood, but truth be told, I enjoyed Other Voices, Other Rooms more. I think what appealed to me most was the setting of the derelict Mississippi mansion and the sensitivity with which Capote writes 13-year-old protagonist Joel Harrison Knox and the characters who surround him. While In Cold Blood is a “true crime” novel that takes a more journalistic tone, Other Voices, Other Rooms is partially autobiographical and gives the reader an interesting look at the author’s background. If the character development was what you liked best about True Detective, read this.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt
I read this book when I was probably too young for it (12-year-old me learned a lot about drag queen culture in Savannah), but I still loved it. While it’s based on a true murder case, it reads like a novel and is so addicting that it shouldn’t take long to finish. Berendt paints such vivid pictures of the characters and the settings that I felt like I was a member of the Savannah, Georgia community by the end. If you liked the fleeting moments of humor that popped up amidst the darkness of True Detective (mostly stemming from Rust’s eccentricities) then you may enjoy the blending of light and dark in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Coiled in the Heart, Scott Elliott
Full disclosure: Scott Elliott was one of my English professors at Whitman College, so there may be some bias here, but I still think fans of True Detective will enjoy Coiled in the Heart. The novel follows Tobia Caldwell, a man who is haunted into adulthood by the fact that he caused a neighbor boy’s snakebite death when the two of them were young. To complicate matters further, Tobia is in love with that neighbor boy’s twin sister. The book is full of ghosts, fading Southern families, untamed nature, antebellum mansions—basically everything you could ask for in a Southern Gothic novel.
Bonus Book: Waterland, Graham Swift
I can’t officially call this book a “Southern Gothic” recommendation because it’s not set in the South—it’s set in the marshes of East Anglia. However, Waterland is one of my all-time favorite novels and features a lot of Southern Gothic elements, including a rural setting, a “cursed” family, and multiple doomed romances. Somehow, it manages not to be melodramatic. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, so I’ll just say check it out while you’re waiting for another show to fill the True Detective void.